Is it wise to build such large vessels when they will need to navigate small canals?

First published in April 2021.

Until recently, the “Suez crisis” was the phrase used to describe a pivotal event in 1956. Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, a move that angered Britain, which moved alongside France and Israel to retake control. Supported by the Soviets, the Egyptian demand for withdrawal of the British-French-Israeli forces ultimately led to US intervention. President Eisenhower’s administration put pressure on the occupying forces and they responded by ending hostilities.

Then came a new “Suez crisis”. Ever Given, the world’s largest container ship — about the size of the Eiffel Tower — was grounded in the Suez Canal, its bow wedged into the bank. The ship, operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp., was bound for the Netherlands when it ran aground. For days it blocked the key global trade route, disrupting the international flow of goods. The logjam around the Suez Canal affected shipments of crude oil, liquefied natural gas... and robusta coffee as well!

Roughly 12% of global trade goes through the Suez Canal with an average of 50 ships passing through the canal every day in convoys that begin in the early morning. All of that was choked off. Until the 200,000-tonne container ship was freed, it was feared it would take days and weeks to dislodge it. A blocked canal can be a smart internet meme — click here and here for the deluge of cleverness — but that was an unparalleled crisis.

As has often been pointed out, the flow of goods by sea accounts for 70% of international trade. From antiquity, wars have been fought over maritime trade routes — the Greco-Persian conflict in the 5th century BC, for instance. (In 2015, I was in Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal V 2.0. Click here, here and here for what I wrote at the time.)

This Suez crisis, of course, was not about military conflict so much as the shipping industry’s need to adapt. Is it wise to build such large vessels when they will need to navigate small canals?

Bloomberg (paywall) recently quoted a former captain Andrew Kinsey, who navigated a 300-metre cargo ship through the Suez Canal and now serves as a senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. It’s such a small canal,” he said of the Suez, “the winds are very rough and you have a really small margin for error and big consequences if errors happen.”

He added dolefully: “There will be vessels larger than this one that will be going through the Suez,” he said. “The next incident will be worse.” 

Going Further:

Rashmee Roshan Lall, Journalist, World affairs columnist.


[This piece was originally published in Medium and re-published in PMP Magazine on 4 April 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Twitter/Maxar Technologies. - Satellite imagery of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal. | 27 March 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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